John Marin (1870-1953)

John Marin (1870-1953)

Leave it to the true creative artist – he’ll find a place for the stones and weeds of life in his pictures… to sing its music with color, line and spacing upon its keyboard…the picture appears – a work of art tells the story the best, it transcends the factual.                                                  

-- John Marin, December 10, 1946 [i]

[i] John Marin: A Retrospective Exhibition 1947, Institute of Modern Art, Boston.

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A true pioneer of American modern art, John Marin broke through the traditionally naturalistic approach to depicting the Maine landscape and introduced the art of abstraction to the rural state.  Although not a native, Marin dedicated much of his career to capturing Maine’s shores and islands and took to calling himself the “Ancient Marin-er.”  He developed an almost spiritual bond with the ocean over his forty summers there, and worked from such locales as Small Point, Stonington, Cape Split, and even his own Marin Island. 

Marin enrolled briefly at the Art Students League in 1902, followed by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, and studies abroad in 1905.  His earliest works were surprisingly Whistlerian in style, consisting of finely executed architectural etchings.  It was the influence of Cubism, however, that was the driving force behind Marin’s work, made evident by his later, and more popular, New York cityscapes and Maine seascapes.  

Marin began working in watercolor during 1911 and chose Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery as his primary New York venue, displaying his watercolors alongside works by Braque, Cezanne and Matisse. Three years later, Marin made his first visit to West Point, Maine, and began his second major series of watercolors. He adamantly opposed the mere copying of an image, and instead translated his observations into a unique visual language, often working animatedly with a brush in each hand.  Marin abhorred studio work, and considered the ferocious Maine mosquitoes as the better of two evils when compared to working indoors. His paintings are therefore the result of his immediate response to his surroundings- uncalculated, expressive and brimming with life in their careful balance of color and form.

After years of exhibiting internationally, Marin’s work became sought after by museums across the country during the 1930s. In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held his first retrospective, and within ten years the Institute of Modern Art in Boston followed suit with a second retrospective that traveled to museums in Washington and Minneapolis.  Marin’s fame continued as he was voted America’s “Artist No.1” by Look Magazine in 1948, the same year that MacKinley Helm published his biography.  This endless publicity and praise never pulled him away from the Maine landscape; in 1938, Marin wrote to Alfred Stieglitz about the draw of his adopted state:

Old Mistress – Maine – She makes you to lug–lug–lug– she makes you to pull–pull–pull– she makes you to haul–haul–haul– and when she’s thrashed you a plenty – between those thrashings, she loves, she smiles, she’s beautiful…the big and mighty Atlantic. [i]

References: John Marin and the Sea, Kennedy Galleries, 1982; John Marin: A Retrospective Exhibition 1947, Institute of Modern Art, Boston; John Marin Drawings, University of Utah, 1969; Awash in Color, MFA Boston, 1993. ‚Äč

[i] John Marin, letter to Alfred Stieglitz, August 28, 1932, Paintings of Maine, Ed. Arnold Skonick, Chameleon Books, 1991.

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